The only brother of six sisters, father of two married daughters, Sanji Ram stands accused of orchestrating one of the most heinous and rarest of rare crimes committed against the girl child in the recent, collective memory of the Indian nation. His depravity is underscored by the fact that he allegedly hatched the devious plan of abducting and mercilessly killing an eight-year-old girl of the nomadic Gujjar-Bakerwal Muslim community in order to instil fear in them to such an extent they leave the area forever.
Sanji’s crime is accentuated by the fact that he picked the abode of his family deities - devasthan, the holy place where he has been a pujari for decades - for perpetrating it. That’s not all. He recruited his nephew as a protagonist in this criminal saga in which his son, studying in far away Meerut, also later joined and abetted in raping and killing the poor girl.
And when the going got tough, he agreed to throw his juvenile nephew under the bus and make him the fall guy. Under pressure, he broke like an egg and sang like a canary revealing the whole plan to the cops, leading to arrest of all the eight accused.
This is, essentially, what the charge sheet in the infamous Kathua rape tells us.
Not everyone is buying it. Certainly, not the locals. They don’t trust the crime branch and are terming the charge sheet as ‘filmy kahani’ cooked up by cops in the lockup by coercing the accused to weave the narrative that suits the political bosses in Srinagar. Hence, the protest calling for a CBI investigation. Sanji Ram's elder daughter Madhubala has been on a hunger strike since 31 March. She is joined by scores of Rasana residents, men and women, who are sitting firm under a big peepal tree on Kootah Mod demanding a fair enquiry by the central agency.
The Crime and Conspiracy: On The Trail Of Events As They Transpired According To Chargesheet
The picturesque hilly village of Rasana is located in the Hiranagar area of Jammu's Kathua district. A battered iron board welcomes us as we enter a narrow stretch flanked by forest and fields. Thanks to the sudden spike in activity in this sleepy village, a makeshift police booth has been set up where visitors are required to sign in a register. A helpful cop advises us to be "careful" as "villagers are angry with the Delhi press".
Barely two kilometres into the lane, we reach the house of Veena Devi, neighbour of the key accused Sanji Ram. She has been named in the charge-sheet as someone who last saw the girl in the village. She narrates to Swarajya what she saw: "It must have been around 12 pm and I was on my terrace when I saw a girl calling me, 'Ae bua, ae bua, mera ghoda labba? (Hey aunty, did you see my horse?) I told her I had not seen it. And that she must go back to her house. I scolded her asking what was she even doing here alone. Then I looked at the terrace of Sanji Ram's house, and saw someone lying on a khaat (cot) fully covered with a sheet. I asked (Darshana, wife of Sanji) who is this person sleeping in the sun. She replied 'meri nanad ka ladka hai (my sister-in-law's son). Then I went back to my business."
As per the charge sheet, this boy (son of Om Prakash and Tripta Devi) had already been instructed by his maternal uncle Sanji Ram to kidnap this particular girl "who often comes to the forests behind the house of Sanji Ram for grazing her horses". The report says the boy was even prepared for his attack having bought sedatives the previous day, and that he immediately rushed down with Devasthan keys and led the girl to the jungle promising her help, where his friend and co-accused Mannu was already waiting for his signal.
Veena Devi says she did not see the boy come downstairs, but she doesn't refute the possibility either. "If the boy called out the girl and came down to meet her, I do not know," she said. She, however, said it was for the first time she saw the girl. "She wasn't a regular visitor. Had she been one, I would know. I saw her for the first time."
A number of other villagers Swarajya spoke to also denied having seen the girl before. Mohammad Yusuf, the girl's father, has said in an earlier interview that the Bakarwals almost never went to Rasana for grazing cattle and the girl had somehow ventured into the area.
This begs the question, if the girl was spotted for the first time, how come she became a specific target of Sanji Ram? Veena Devi’s husband Mahendra Sharma, who works in Mumbai, told us that his wife had told him about the girl over phone three times - first on 10 January, when she saw the girl, second on 11 January, when the girl’s mother came looking for her missing child, and third on 17 January when her body was found. “I rebuked her mother. It took her a day to come looking for her here. We start losing our minds if our children get late even by 10 minutes,” Veena Devi told Swarajya.
Veena Devi recalls that the girl was strikingly beautiful, and was wearing a "jamuni" salwar kameez. She says it’s the same dress the girl was wearing when her body was discovered. Defence lawyer in the case, Ankur Sharma, has a conspiracy theory related to the dress. "How come the only photograph available of the girl is the one in the same dress? It looks like it was professionally clicked. Was it done just before she went missing or killed? Why?" he asked rhetorically. Villagers, however, say it's not unusual for Bakarwal kids to have all of one or two sets of clothes. They do question the viral photos of the mother sitting beside the girl’s dead body with her school bag and uniform. “She didn’t attend any school as far as we know. Where did the uniform come from? Yusuf sent his two boys to school but not the adopted girl. She instead attended to grazing ponies,” tells a local.
The charge sheet mentions that Sanji Ram’s juvenile nephew overheard the girl asking Veena Devi about her ponies. He rushed downstairs and offered his help. After a while, away from the public view, he forcefully administered sedatives to the girl while his friend Mannu held her. The nephew raped the unconscious girl. Mannu tried but couldn’t. Then both took her to Devasthan where she was confined for the next few days.
This Devasthan is a two-minute walk from Sanji Ram's house whose main gate opens to a courtyard that leads to the main road, and the side door opens to the mud track that connects the home to Devasthan. It's essentially a room located bang in the middle of the jungle, with Sanji Ram’s the only house visible. Pink walls, three doors, cement floor, and a hand pump, havan kund and a large tin shed surround the compound. The Devasthan was locked when we visited it. A local accompanying us arranged the keys. Inside, on one side, is a raised platform where idols are kept, along with a photograph of the 'kuldevta' (named Kaaliveer, depicted as a man with a halo sitting on a horse). The other side has two drums filled with grocery items like sugar and rice. There is also a table, with utensils and mats neatly placed on it. This 4X3 feet table is the one beneath which the girl was allegedly kept for days, wrapped under a bundle of plastic and cotton mats. The table looks rather small to hide a child under it without anyone noticing.
Sanji Ram keeps one of the three sets of keys in his house. The other two keys are in the adjoining two villages - Patta and Kootah - that is also home to members of the Jangotra clan.
Is it possible that a girl is confined in the room without other villagers knowing about it? It is, given how secluded the place is, but only if no resident of Rasana or other two villages happened to visit it or if the entire village is part of the conspiracy.
We spent about an hour at the shrine in noon, and no one dropped by. But villagers say it is customary for them to visit the shrine early morning, before beginning their day. A jyoti was already lit near the idols.
The charge sheet says that it was late evening on 13 January, the day of Lohri, that Sanji Ram told his nephew, son Vishal Jangotra, and Mannu that it was time they killed the girl. The report says the body was taken to a nearby culvert and soon they were joined by a 28-year-old policeman Deepak Khajuria who expressed a desire to rape the girl before she was killed. The policeman tried to strangulate the girl to death but failed, and the task was then carried out by the minor nephew who "killed her by pressing his knees against her back and strangulated the girl by applying force on both the ends of her chunni". He also allegedly hit her twice on head with stone (although it’s hard to fathom how a 28-year-old, that too a trained policeman, couldn’t kill the girl but a boy half his age did!).
After this ghastly act, the accused kept the body in Devasthan because a vehicle could not be arranged to dump the body in Hiranagar canal, 5 kilometres away. On 15 January, Sanji Ram is said to have told his men that since a vehicle could not be arranged, they must dump the body in the forest because the next day Sanji Ram has to perform 'Fanda' for someone in the Devasthan. Fanda is a ritual in which the pujari wards off the evil eye from a person, usually followed by a bhandara, which means free food.
Mother of accused boy complicit?
According to the charge sheet, Sanji Ram had local cops on his payroll. Station Police Officer Deepak Khajuria was part of the conspiracy to kidnap and murder the girl. Other cops Tilak Raj and Anathe nd Dutta were bribed to the tune of Rs 4 lakh.
As per the charge sheet, Tripta Devi visited Sanji Ram's house on 12 January where her brother told her all about her son's involvement in the kidnapping and confinement of the girl. The charge sheet says that Sanji Ram handed over Rs 1.5 lakh to Tripta to hand it over to Tilak Raj who she had known since childhood.
Tripta Devi denied the charges when Swarajya visited her. "I didn’t visit my brother’s house as they claim in the charge sheet, let alone giving money to Tilak Raj. My son was rusticated by the school for bad behaviour. He had a scuffle with the boys. It's wrongly mentioned that he was kicked out of school over girls. I sent him to my brother so he could study and clear his board exams. He was taking tuitions there. How can a mother approve of such a conspiracy with her son in the lead? This looks like a script for television. This is not the reality," she said. The minor boy has an elder sister and brother.
The Many Questions Of Villagers
As per the charge sheet, the body lay dumped in the forest till it was discovered on the morning of 17th. The villagers raise several questions.
First, how come the body emanated no foul smell even after three days (13th night, 14th, 15th and 16th)?
Second, why did no one spot the body while on their way to Devasthan, especially on 16 January, when they visited the shrine in large numbers?
Third, why, in the cold of January, did the body not become stiff? Villagers claim that when they saw the body at a protest staged by Bakarwals, it was limp.
Fourth, why would Sanji Ram, to whom his sister had sent her wayward minor son so that he could study under his stern guidance, deploy him to carry out a criminal conspiracy? Would the mother have sent her son if she knew his brother had such bent of mind?
Fifth, why would the key conspirator leave the body just outside Devasthan even on the day of Fanda when scores of people came and feasted on Bhandara? Why didn't he simply dig up the earth and bury the body? The charge sheet says the accused had washed the girl's clothes to destroy evidence and so "FSL Srinagar could not frame any opinion on the basis of examination of the washed clothes..." But why would the accused only stop at washing clothes and not make any effort to hide the body?
Sixth, how did no one spot the girl in the Devasthan even on 13 January when lots of people visited the place? "It was Lohri. We all went to Devasthan. Food was distributed. We picked up darees from the table and placed them on the floor to sit and sing devotional songs. There is no chance a girl is kept under the table and no one sees it," said Bishan Das, a 76-year-old Rasana resident who retired as subedar from the Army.
Seventh, how could Sanji Ram’s son, Vishal Jangotra, be in Meerut and Kathua at the same time? The crime branch investigation places Vishal in Rasana while the college records show that he was giving exams in Meerut. His elder sister Monika shows us Vishal’s instagram posts which display Muzzafarnagar as his location. But it’s fairly easy to retrospectively change the location of an Instagram post. However, the jury is still out on whether Vishal was indeed in Rasana at that time. The police say they have confiscated the CCTV footage of the exam centre but hasn’t revealed its findings yet. “First, they tried framing Sanji Ram’s elder son, but since he is in the Navy, they knew it wasn’t possible to do so. Later, they decided to go with Vishal,” says a family member of Jangotra.
Eighth, the charge sheet mentions that the juvenile hit the girl with a stone twice and “killed her by pressing his knees against her back and strangulated the girl by applying force on both the ends of her chunni.” However, according to the medical reports, the “...victim had been kept without food and administered sedatives and her cause of death was asphyxia leading to cardiopulmonary arrest.” Which one is it?
Ninth, the charge sheet says the investigation team found a hair strand in the Devasthan. If the girl was kept for days in the room, how come the cops found only a strand of hair there?
Tenth, how come the mastermind of the sordid tale who is supposed to have carried out the grand conspiracy turned out to be a nincompoop? When he spent lakhs in bribing local cops for covering it all up, why couldn’t he arrange a vehicle to bury or hide the body? Why, of all the places in the entire jungle, would he chose to throw the body in the open, barely a stone's throw-away from his home, at a spot from where his house is the nearest and thus most vulnerable to suspicion?
This, in brief, is why villagers believe there is "a conspiracy from outside" and are alleging that "the girl was killed and dumped in Rasana".
The Conspiracy - 1: Mysterious motorcycle
Bishan Das tells us about the "motorcycle incident". According to some villagers, they have been sharing the it with everyone from the Crime Branch to "Delhi reporters" but this angle is being deliberately ignored. "On the night of 16 January, the village transformer went bust around 10 pm. The weather wasn’t unfavourable. Why it happened remains a mystery. Some of us had our equipment damaged. Then, around 3 am, I got up to relieve myself, and spotted a motorcycle - I think it was a Bullet - enter the village. The men had wrapped 'kambal' around their body. It was cold. I could not sleep after this. Some 25-30 minutes later, the bike returned and left the village,” says Das whose house is at the entrance of the village.
This was highly unusual, they say. Villagers talk about a few old women "who usually don't sleep in the night" having heard the sound of the bike. An old woman at the protest site admitted to having seen a bike "that stopped outside Sanji Ram's house but promptly took a turn".
Swarajya inquired with the immediate neighbour of Sanji Ram, Dharampal Sharma. He said he was out of Jammu at that time but got to know about the transformer bit because his refrigerator suffered damage.
Villagers believe the bikers had thrown the body at the site themselves.
The Conspiracy - 2: How did they know about Sanji Ram’s involvement on 17 January itself?
The girl’s body was sent to Kathua district hospital for autopsy on the afternoon of 17 January . Villagers say that activist-lawyer Talib Hussain was also present. How did he reach Kathua from "his hometown Poonch in a matter of hours", the villagers ask.
"Hussain appeared out of nowhere and even accompanied the Bakarwals when they went to Kathua hospital for autopsy around 12 pm. Was he already here In Kathua? Why?" asks one Radhakrishna, a relative of the accused Mannu. Rasana residents say it was Hussain as well as two Bakarwal brothers, sons of one Mohammad Jaan, who first took Sanji's name at the protest that was launched in the evening of 17th. “How did they know about Sanji Ram when no one had any clue that day who killed the girl? We saw Hussain for the first time that day. Neither he knows us nor we know about him,” quips a local resident.
We talked to many residents of Kootah and Rasana village and all confirmed that Sanji Ram’s name was indeed taken on 17th itself.
"By noon on 17 January, the Bakarwals had kept the dead body on a charpoy at the Kootah Mod (junction). It was a gathering of more than fifty people, mostly Bakarwals but also some Kashmiri Muslims. I saw Talib Hussain and heard him name Sanji and "Sanji ke ladke" (Sanji's sons) as accused," says a Kootah resident who requested to remain anonymous. This resident said he had known Yusuf for long and had gone there to express condolences to Yusuf. He also said that it was the first time he learnt about Yusuf's daughter even though he had seen his two sons going to school.
How come Hussain named the accused even before the formal investigation started?
The eye witness in Kootah further said that on Chauta (fourth day of the death marked by the Bakarwal community that fell on 21 January), there was again a congregation, this time much bigger and "comprising of a lot of Kashmiri Muslims". "This time, names of Sanji, his son Vishal and constable Deepak were taken on a loudspeaker," he told Swarajya.
Though establishing motive behind a crime is not central to getting a conviction, it is nonetheless very important. The charge sheet clearly says that Sanji Ram carried out the conspiracy and his motive behind abducting and killing the girl was to dislodge the Bakarwals from the area. It mentions that Sanji Ram had been beaten up by the Bakarwals and wanted to take revenge. However, the villagers doubt if such an incident took place and if the Bakarwals indeed had the gumption to beat up someone from the majority community on whom they depended for housing for their family and pasture for their cattle.
The charge sheet says Sanji Ram had started a campaign against one Harnam Singh of Kootah, who had sold land to Bakarwals. But Singh vehemently denies this. He told Swarajya that “Sanji Ram never ran such a campaign. We never had any enmity”. Another resident of the village, Balbir Singh, who had sold land to the girl's father Yusuf on the outskirts of Rasana in 2007, told Swarajya that Sanji Ram never campaigned against him either.
Maligning The Other - 1: Bakarwals
The residents of Rasana village told us that on 17 January, hundreds of Bakarwals with many Kashmiri Muslims in their caravan carried out a protest march in the evening and they banged their doors with lathis while passing by their houses. This instilled fear in them. After their march, angry Bakarwals staged a demonstration with the dead body at the junction of the adjoining Kootah village, where they raised 'Pakistan Zindabad' slogans.
A Kootah resident who was at the site contests the charge. "Someone had written 'Pakistan Zindabad' on a wall, but I would say it was mischief. I did not hear any such slogans,” he told us. This resident was all praise for Yusuf and Bakarwals who, he said, were very peaceful people and didn’t bother anyone. “They live in the jungle, up in the hills, on the outskirts of the village. Our relations are very good. We never had any issues with them,” he says.
Maligning The Other - 2: The Hindu Ekta Manch, All Dogras And The Entire Hindu Community
Rasana villagers say that when the Crime Branch began to randomly pick up people in January, leaders from all political parties and activists came together to form the Hindu Ekta Manch. "It's just a group of people. It's not a registered organisation," said Ankur Sharma.
"Why can’t we say Bharat mata Ki Jai? We were maligned as defenders of rapists. We have been saying from the first day that whatever happened is horrible. We also want justice for the girl. But why are they framing innocents? We have merely asked for CBI inquiry. Why are we being called defenders of rapists?" asked Madhu.
The villagers are angry that they are being misrepresented. Dogras in Jammu believe the whole community is being maligned in a systematic manner just for demanding a fair enquiry into the matter. “It’s not just limited to Dogras now. Their vicious campaign is now targeting the entire Hindu community. We have seen Whatsapp and Facebook posts that depict condoms on Shivji’s trishul with the girl’s dead body on one spike. It’s disgraceful how their focus has changed from demanding justice for the little girl to maligning the whole community. Are our gods and our religious symbols synonymous with rape now?” fumes an angry shopkeeper at Kootah junction.
A Poor Victim Of Vicious Propaganda
"It's a free for all. Anything and everything is being said about us without evidence," says Sachin Sangra, a resident, introducing us to one Vishal Jangotra. It turns out that his photograph is being widely circulated on the Internet, passing it off as that of the "rapist" Vishal Jangotra. A distraught and visibly shaken Jangotra told Swarajya, "They are baying for my blood. An actor (Ajaz Khan) has placed a bounty of fifty lakh on me. I deactivated my Facebook account because the comments left me petrified. Wherever I go, people ask me if I am the rapist. The other day, I had to wrap a handkerchief around my face for a trip to Jammu. I am a poor man who cooks at wedding functions. What if they kill me?"
The Road To Justice
There appear to be some holes in the charge-sheet filed by the Jammu and Kashmir Crime Branch and its coverage by the media has left a bad taste in the mouth. Whether or not Sanji Ram and others committed this dastardly attack will be decided by the competent agencies. But no one is ready to accept that Sanji would go to such lengths as to employ his own son and his nephew to carry out the evil plan. There are many conspiracy theories doing the rounds but theories will have to make way for facts.
What stands out in the case is the insistence of the accused for a CBI enquiry and Narco tests to establish the truth. But it’s unlikely that Mehbooba Mufti, who has made the case into a battle of prestige, will give in to such demands. Doing so would be calamitous for her political fortunes. However, that’s hardly a reason for not transferring the probe to an agency like the CBI since confidence in the state Crime Branch is low. The road to justice for the little girl is a bumpy one. The last thing we need is another headline proclaiming ‘No one killed her’ if the evidence does not stack up against those currently billed as the perpetrators of this stomach-churning crime.
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